Syria opposition reaches out to Army

Amnesty International accuses military of opting a "shoot-to-kill" policy.

Updated: May 27, 2011, 12:39 PM IST

Damascus: Syria`s pro-democracy movement has reached out to the Army ahead of Friday protests, urging soldiers to join their cause as a global rights group accused the military of opting a "shoot-to-kill" policy.

"We urge our supporters to deliver a message to free soldiers in the Syrian Army so that hand in hand the guardians of the homeland join our peaceful revolution," said Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook group spurring anti-regime protests that have swept the country since mid-March.

This week`s protests are being promoted under the slogan "Friday of the guardians of the homeland”, a reference to the Army and a play on words used in the first verse of Syria`s national anthem.

"The Army, the people, one hand," said the group on Facebook alongside a picture of Yusuf al-Azmah, a national hero who stood up to the French Army during the colonial era.

However, it was unlikely the Army would break ranks with the regime, given that top commanders are fiercely loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and hail mostly from his minority Alawite community, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

The Army`s feared 4th division, which was sent in to put down protests in the southern flashpoint town of Daraa, is also controlled by the President`s brother Maher.

Thursday`s appeal came amid mounting condemnation by rights groups of the regime`s brutal crackdown on protesters, with Amnesty International saying it had evidence the military was implementing a "shoot-to-kill" policy.

"Amnesty International has obtained video footage that points to a `shoot to kill` policy being used by the Syrian security forces to quell reform protests," said the London-based human rights watchdog.

It said the footage was shot in late March and April in and around Daraa.

"Images of unarmed civilians shot in the head help explain why there have been so many fatalities," said Philip Luther, Amnesty`s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

A Syrian rights group also slammed the regime`s use of force, saying arbitrary arrests were widespread with security forces even storming hospitals and "kidnapping" patients.

"Syrians have been brutalised beyond imagination for 48 years by the (ruling) Baath regime. Now they have reached a tipping point," the Cairo-based National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria said in a statement.

"Reports have shown that patients have been... kidnapped from hospitals and moved to the military prisons, depriving them of basic treatment and care, and subjecting them to permanent disability and death," it added.

Rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed and 10,000 arrested since the unrest broke out on March 15.

A Syrian Army official said on Thursday that 112 soldiers and security troops had also been killed and 1,238 wounded.

An Interior Ministry official said 31 police officers have been killed, with 619 wounded.

The government insists the unrest posing the greatest challenge to Assad`s 11-year rule is the work of "armed terrorist gangs" backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.

It initially responded to the revolt by offering some concessions, including lifting the state of emergency in place for nearly five decades. Earlier this week it also cut diesel prices by 25 percent.

The opposition, however, has dismissed calls for dialogue, saying that could only take place once the violence ends, political prisoners are released and other reforms are adopted.

But the regime has remained defiant even amid mounting international condemnation and punitive US and EU sanctions slapped on Assad and top aides.

European nations on Thursday pressed a campaign to get the UN Security Council to warn Syria that its deadly crackdown on opposition protests could be a crime against humanity.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said reinforced sanctions against Assad`s regime will be on the agenda of the G8 summit of the world`s most powerful leaders "because the violence being used against demonstrators is unacceptable”.

International Committee for the Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger criticised Syria for denying it access to detainees.

The ICRC head told journalists in Geneva his staff have been denied access to several cities where people have been detained.

"We have so far received no access... and I do not hide from you that I am extremely worried about that from what I hear and know," he said, but added that ICRC staff had been given some access to prisoners in Daraa.

Bureau Report